Where Have All the Voters Gone?

young woman in a polling booth
young woman in a polling booth

On Election Day last week, only 36.4 percent of eligible voters managed to squeeze their constitutional right-to-vote into their very busy lives.

Despite a range of early voting options that allow us to vote whenever we want, only 83 million out of the 230+ million citizens in the United Stated recognized how important it was to take the time to study the issues, listen to the candidates and then actively choose who they want representing them at the federal, state and local level.

Voting is the most important civic duty of every citizen in our nation. It is nothing less than the heartbeat of our democracy. But when more than half of our citizens just do not show up, our collective heartbeat weakens, and our democratic society finds itself not thriving but on life support.

This week, just one week after Election Day, we celebrate our nation's veterans. Ironically, a recent poll showed that total voter turnout in last week's mid-term elections was the lowest since 1942, the year when the United States was in the middle of World War II, when many adult-aged U.S. Citizens were preoccupied with fighting a world war to maintain our freedoms and our form of government. Total military and civilian deaths world-wide during WWII amounted to nearly the same number of people who chose to vote this year: WWII took the lives of somewhere between 60 and 80 million people, including the nearly 400,000 Americans -- military and civilian -- who died during that war.

It is time for all Americans to wake up and fully understand how dramatically their decision NOT to vote impacts the lives of us all. It is our local, state and federal elected officials, each with their differing jurisdictions, who decide how much to support public education, the most effective investments in jobs and infrastructure, how much to protect our environment and whether to pump more funding into prisons or our colleges and when we go to war.

In short, elected officials hold the fate of all of us in their hands. And what do we hold in our hands?

The absolute need to study the ballots and fill in those small circles for those we believe will best represent our views; to turn carefully read pages so we understand the issues; and to turn up televisions or radios to listen not just to nasty campaign ads but to the details on candidates' positions and backgrounds.

Achieving a civil society that reflects our reflective will is within our reach if we exercise our civic duty to vote. Civility is not bestowed upon us because we deserve it, but is instead a byproduct of a democratic society where citizens are fully engaged, actively voting, eagerly demanding real answers and honest solutions. When fewer than 40 percent of us even show up at the polls, how can we expect to have a government invested in workable solutions for the majority of our citizens 100 percent of the time?

At least 30 countries around the world require that their citizens vote or pay a fine. William Galston of the Brookings Institution has been arguing the case for compulsory voting by Americans for years. And in a recent CNN interview he said: "You're not required to do all that much as a citizen. It seems to me that asking citizens who enjoy all the rights and privileges of American citizenship to vote once every two years is not too much to ask." Is that a road we should go down?